"Everything was a dirty little secret back then," she says of the health issue in the '70s

Ellen DeGeneres wants to help keep breast cancer out of the closet.

Recalling what it was like in the 1970s, when her mother, Betty, was undergoing treatment for the disease, the talk show host, 49, tells USA Today, “Everything was a dirty little secret back then.”

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness month, DeGeneres adds, “The fact that she had a mastectomy was not spoken of. She tried to shield me from it a little bit, but she needed my help with recovery and physical rehabilitation. It bonded us even more.”

DeGeneres was 16 at the time her mother was battling the cancer, which was further stigmatized by the fact that, Ellen also recalls, she was raised in what she considers the confining atmosphere of small town Atlanta, Texas.

Remembering the support her daughter gave her, Betty DeGeneres, now 77, tells the newspaper, “It’s a very special relationship that I do not take for granted. We’ve been there for each other.”

Betty DeGeneres also says her medical condition helped contribute to the demise of her second marriage. Since then, she adds, her famous daughter has tried to fix her up.

“I’ve had a couple of boyfriends, and they were very nice,” says the elder DeGeneres. “Ellen had Peter O’Toole on the show and asked him what he was looking for in a woman, ‘because my mama’s single.’ ”

Ellen, whose partner is Nip/Tuck actress Portia de Rossi, found a growth in her own breast some years ago, resulting in the removal of some non-cancerous tissue, reports the paper – which also says that the dancing TV star has been asked to demonstrate her footwork at the doctor’s office during her mammogram visits.

“It’s not usually a place I dance, but it is a place I go all the time, and people know me there,” she says.

With the American Cancer Society recommending annual mammograms for women 40 and older, DeGeneres just wishes there were a more comfortable method for examining tissue than machines that press against the breast for low-dosage X-rays.

“There’s got to be a better way,” she observes. “I swear, if men had to have their penises squeezed between something like that, somebody would be working really hard on it.”